Proposals to make it easier for child sex abuse victims to bring civil claims

Plans to make it easier and less traumatic for victims of child sexual abuse to bring historic claims through the civil courts have been unveiled by the government today (15 May 2024)

  • consultation on plans to reverse the burden of proof before cases are heard in court
  • placing burden of proof on defendant reduces need for survivors to re-live trauma
  • follows commitment in response to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Currently child sexual abuse claims must be brought within three years of the claimant turning 18 unless the court grants an extension. For this to happen the victim must prove a fair trial can proceed, despite a time lapse. This means victims often have to repeat and relive their traumatic experience before cases reach the court and often means historic cases cannot progress due to a lack of evidence.

Government proposals would reverse this burden of proof – meaning cases would proceed automatically, unless the defendant proves it is not possible for there to be a fair hearing.

Justice Minister, Lord Bellamy, said:

"Child sexual abuse is utterly abhorrent and we must protect the interests of these victims and survivors by making the judicial process as straightforward as possible.

"However, we also know limitation periods play an important role in ensuring defendants’ rights to a fair trial, which is why our proposal to reverse the burden of proof strikes the right balance. We welcome all views and will consider all responses carefully."

This consultation follows a commitment to explore options for reform in this area, in response to recommendations from the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in 2022.

The Inquiry heard that a “significant number” of claims are being rejected because of the time limit. Yet the overwhelming majority of child sexual abuse claims are brought later than three years, because it can take “decades for survivors to feel able to discuss their sexual abuse”.

Research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse found it takes on average 26 years for victims to disclose sexual abuse.

Following the IICSA findings, the government accepted that limitation in its current form can act as a barrier to justice in these instances. It also creates added trauma by forcing victims to go through an additional stage of applying to have their case heard – and relive their past experiences – without any guarantee it will progress.

The proposal to reverse the burden of proof largely removes this hurdle, while maintaining the limitation period.

Limitation periods are put in place across all civil claims. They work to protect justice by striking a balance between the rights of claimants to bring claims and the rights of defendants to a fair trial. It is a way of acknowledging the difficulty in establishing the facts long after the event. The quality of evidence can decline over the years, key witnesses may be unavailable or have passed away, and crucial documents destroyed.

For these reasons, the government does not support the Inquiry’s recommendation to remove the limitation period entirely. However, the consultation is seeking wider views on this option.

The 3 year limitation period applies from the date of the alleged abuse or knowledge of abuse, or from when the child turns 18.

Another government proposal is to put Court of Appeal guidance on which factors should be considered when removing the time limitation, formally into statute. This would mean when determining applications for an extension to time limits judges would be required to formally take account of the guidance, ensuring each case is dealt with in exactly the same way.

From: Ministry of Justice and Lord Bellamy KC